Disruption Looms as Workers Return to the Office

As the global disaster of our generation wanes and people begin to emerge from isolation, misaligned expectations about the future of remote work models start to appear. Surveys show that much of the workforce has enjoyed the benefits of working from home. Conversely, many employers are anxious to get employees back in the office and return to the traditional ways of engagement. Organizations are already experiencing the friction. Leadership must prevail to avoid serious business disruption. This may be the moment when Hybrid Working rises to become an accepted practice in the corporate world.

A cascading chain of events precipitated much of the world into isolation and over a year ago, businesses were abruptly forced to adapt. Where it was possible, employees immediately shifted to a remote work model, often working from home. It was a brutal change, unfamiliar to most, that happened very suddenly. Organizations rushed to explore options, deploy tools, and embrace services to enable employees to remain productive.

Employees were frustrated with the unfamiliar tools and stark differences between being physically in an office setting and face-to-face with clients. Madness ensued as people struggled with video conferencing mute settings, bewildered with configuring web cameras, and aggravated with the lack of rich interaction by joining audio bridges in place of sitting around conference room tables.

There was a steep learning curve where all the frustrations and shortcomings were painfully apparent. But shortly after the plateau of discontentment occurred, the benefits began to become obvious and the aggravation gave way to enlightenment.

The act of commuting to work in the car or train was recognized as lost hours — unproductive work time and away from family. Recovery of this irreplaceable asset was instantly valued by not going into the office. Gossip at the water cooler was no longer a breeding ground of inter-office politics and the accompanying interpersonal stress was significantly reduced.

Employees collectively experienced something new. They saw a glimpse of each other’s private lives, even if it was only through the lens of a home camera, and came to an important revelation — apparently, coworkers are people too! Empathy emerged.

Perhaps it was due to not having to wear uncomfortable shoes (or even pants), the benefits of extra sleep before having to get ready for the day, not sucking in vehicle exhaust fumes while sitting in traffic, or worrying about getting home in time for dinner, but people were more kind.

People had to be more forgiving, as everyone was dealing with their own set of challenges and children, pets, and noisy neighbors that could be heard or seen in the background. Unsurprisingly, people were more cordial and friendly online.

Participation improved as well. Interacting with people in little boxes on the screen was somehow less threatening. Those who were normally intimidated in in-person meetings were more open and shared ideas from the safety of their home.

To the benefit of employers, productivity jumped as hours were flexible and workers focused on delivering objectives, rather than just committing a block of time to the clock.

There were still problems of course. Managers, unfamiliar with overseeing remote workers, still struggled. Some employees took advantage of the lack of oversight. Expectations sometimes remained unclear. Having everyone’s attention in staff meetings seemed challenging and it was tough to give those rally-the-troop speeches on a web conference call.

Overall, there were recognizable benefits to the new ways of work. Surveys are showing that returning workers don’t want to entirely give up the perks and productivity options of working remotely. Not all, but many business leaders are surging forward with plans to restore the old paradigm and get everyone back into the office.

How do organizations find a clear path forward?

Simply put, the expectations of the worker base have changed. Most embrace many of the benefits of remote work flexibility. A majority want to retain some, if not all, of these benefits.

As employees are often considered the most important asset for success, employers are now faced with evaluating how a hybrid model may impact business operations, productivity, employee satisfaction, and achievement of business goals.

Happy employees are more productive. Supporting a flexible work model could go a long way to both attract and retain quality workers. But a hybrid environment adds complexity, potentially more conflict, and possibly even inequity. Organizations must consider the business needs.

Workplace options and opportunities

The decision of where and how to work is not binary. As people emerge from their isolation cocoons, many want to get away from home to see coworkers and clients in person and return to the office setting. But often, people are expressing they want a situation that supports better flexibility and an enhanced work-life balance.

There is no clear requirement for companies as they explore the options. Even manufacturing operations, where the bulk of the workers are required to be physically present on an assembly line, may have back-office employees that don’t necessarily need to be in the office all the time. Payroll, human resources, marketing, and salespeople might want flexibility.

Some businesses have already decided to fully embrace the remote model. Empty offices are no longer a necessary expense and are being sold or the leases are being allowed to expire. Expenditures like electricity, office maintenance, and insurance can be wiped off the books.

Other companies are planning on a hybrid model where workers may only come into the office a few days of the week. That can reduce the overall requirements for space, utilities, and other costs while still supporting some face-to-face interaction. Maintaining the remote-work capabilities remains an important corporate asset.

Lastly, there are businesses already planning the ‘welcome back to the office’ party, where everyone will return to their rightful place in their cubicle, station, or office. Coffee and donuts will be the conciliatory offerings as managers will demand workers return to the office.

These and many other permutations may not align with the desires of employees. In fact, they may create serious problems.

Everyone has a unique perspective of the benefits and drawbacks of working remotely. Their personal experiences have forged their opinions of what they want as employees.

Now is a good time for leaders to revisit policies, revise work practices, and consider evolving from traditional mindsets with a competitive attitude. It is an opportune time to consider reforging the organization into a more agile and stronger organization! Exploration at a minimum is warranted.

Exploring Organizational Change

The first step is to establish a productive dialog between management and employees to understand how a new model could benefit the organization. Communication, planning, and collaboration are crucial. Employees must feel that their voices are being heard and considered.

Empathy, which was experienced during the lockdown, is a requirement to navigate this journey. For many employees, their lives may be drastically different as compared to before the pandemic and everyday work in the office may not be desirable or feasible anymore.

Communication is key. Employees must feel safe in expressing their needs and limitations. Executives must be clear in their concerns and flexibility. These are unusual times and we must be sensitive to both the needs of employees and the success of the business.

Make no mistake, these are crucial discussions. Employee loyalty will be won or lost on this battlefield! They will remember how they were treated. Was their company a great advocate, sensitive, and flexible or was their employer apathetic to their viewpoints, contributions, and needs? How organizations approach this challenge will determine if they reinforce or undermine the dedication of their workforce.

Supporting Tools and Technology

If companies don’t proactively get ahead of the needs of employees, it can create chaos. This is true for expectations, emotional needs, and also for the tools and technologies they use to conduct work.

Take for example all those communication and data sharing tools that were the backbone of remote work. Even if the company IT department won’t support them, workers will still use them for work, inside and outside the office. Unmanaged technology tools create what is known as ‘shadow IT’, which can be a nightmare for an organization to control and can create vulnerabilities to the confidentiality of data and availability of operations.

It is better to be proactive in understanding the worker’s needs and providing them the tools to be productive while also meeting security, safety, and privacy requirements.

Decisions and Clarity

Good decisions begin with good leadership. Decisions need to be made and communicated properly and in a timely manner. Everyone hates ambiguity. Executives must decide if and how the organization will change. They are also responsible for deciding the path and timelines that will impact everyone.

Once a plan is finalized, start communication with the basics:

  • Will there be a physical office to return to and will the office arrangements be different?
  • What kinds of workers are allowed to work partially/fully remote and why?
  • How often do office workers need to come into the office and will there be flexibility?
  • Will work hours and schedules change?

Follow up with well-thought-out policies and procedures that reinforce corporate ethics, equality, and equity principles. For example, will people who choose to come into the office have an informal advantage for advancement? Are there policies or processes that encourage or forbid such directions? Clarity is important.

Lastly, it is up to the leadership to not only communicate but also show-by-example. Policies remain weak until executives showcase them in their actions. Leaders lead from the front and during these uncertain times, employees need leadership to set a good example more than ever. It is a time when great leaders emerge to build stronger teams and accomplish great goals.

The work environment is again shifting and many will be returning to a new-normal that has yet to be determined by most organizations. There will be challenges as part of the world shifts to a hybrid model, but proper leadership acting proactively can forge an optimal path for their business and employees.

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